Reporters on the frontline

Posted: Dec 07, 2001 12:00 AM
Halfway around the globe, American servicemen are in action every day. They’re in the air and on the ground, carrying out missions aimed at tracking down members of al Qaeda and eliminating Afghanistan’s longtime rulers, the Taliban. They are putting their lives on the line, and the country wishes them Godspeed. But there’s another, less heralded, group of people who are also risking their lives in Afghanistan. They’re journalists, and since the war started in October, eight have been killed in the line of duty. They go where the fighting is, so that the rest of us can know what’s going on. Their up-close view is often much different from what we’re seeing here at home. For example, in the early days of the bombing offensive, plenty of pundits warned it might turn ordinary Afghan citizens against us. In the October 31 New York Times, R.W. Apple wrote that, “American bombs falling on civilian targets will not win Afghan "hearts and minds."” On October 23, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden (D-Del) cautioned that the offensive might make the U.S. look like a, “high-tech bully. Every moment it goes on, it makes the aftermath problems more severe.” Because there are reporters on the ground, we know these predictions were wrong. We’ve seen sweeping military success. And as the Northern Alliance advanced, journalists went with them. They brought us pictures of people dancing in the streets for joy. Men shaving off their beards. Women removing their burqas. Citizens celebrating their freedom from the Taliban and praising America’s role. American military officials told us the bombing campaign was focused on eliminating Taliban strongholds. Having journalists inside Afghanistan confirmed that. And while those journalists reported that some bombs went astray and killed civilians, they’ve also shown that overall the bombing has been remarkably accurate, and that despite some causalities, the Afghan people have supported the bombing campaign. Those reporters and photographers face untold danger every day by remaining inside Afghanistan. Three journalists were killed earlier this month while riding on a Northern Alliance tank. Another four died after they were ambushed on the road from Jalalabad to Kabul. And a Swedish television cameraman was killed on Tuesday by gunmen who had broken into a house he shared with other journalists. That most recent incident caused several media outlets -- including the BBC and Reuters -- to withdraw their reporters from northern Afghanistan. The Associated Press and the Washington Post also said their reporters intended to leave. But history shows the journalists will be back before long. During the Gulf War in 1991, CBS correspondent Bob Simon and his three man crew were trying to uncover some news that wasn’t screened by government censors. They were captured on the Iraqi side of the Saudi Arabian border, and spent the next 40 days in prison. Simon was called a spy, and was frequently beaten by his captors. Despite the experience, Simon remained eager to go where the action is. He has since reported from several other war zones – including Sarajevo during the Bosnian civil war. Of course, war correspondents aren’t the only journalists who are facing danger. On November 23, a spokesman for Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe warned foreign journalists they could be treated as terrorists because of their reporting about the indiscriminate beating of white Zimbabweans. The warning was a veiled threat that the journalists should follow the government’s line, or face harsh consequences. Because the Founding Fathers gave us the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press, Americans don’t have to worry about that kind of censorship, and journalists here don’t have to fear for their lives. But the case is another reminder of the risks many journalists are taking in order to practice their craft and keep us informed. We owe all of them a debt of gratitude.